Finding Phyllis Nicklin

Nicklin pictureEvery now and again over the past three years someone in my social media network ‘discovers’ the amazing Phyllis Nicklin archive of images of Birmingham from the 1950s and 60s. It feels like coming across some lost treasure, yet these images were never lost in a physical sense but in digital terms they seem to drift in and out of view. The story about why that happens might tell us something about digital archiving, funding and the social web.

Back story: Nicklin was a geography tutor at the University of Birmingham Department of Extra Mural Studies during the 1950s and 60s. She died in post in 1969 but took hundreds of slides of the city as part of her teaching. The images belong to the University of Birmingham and the physical slides are stored there (or at least they were in 2004 when they were digitised).

Digitisation: In 2003 a project (called Chrysalis) wangled some funding (link to PDF of bid) to “establish a repository that will be used to provide resources and materials to support Learning, skills development, information literacy and provide some access to wide ranging resources relevant to the local history and cultural identity of the West Midlands.”

That resulted in a selection of Nicklin’s slides being digitised. That work was done by ‘Digital Capture Solutions‘ which are in fact a branch of my own university‘s Library Services which received funding (from the Higher Education Funding Council) in 2001 to acquire digital imaging equipment. The images were stored in a ‘digital asset management system’, called Media Vault, hosted at what was then the Technological Innovation Centre, again part of Birmingham City University.

Project Chrysalis: Nicklin’s digitised slides sat quite happily on the website for Project Chrysalis from about April 2004 until 24th June, 2007. The project was part-funded by the (gone-by-March-2012) Advantage West Midlands and the (gone-by-March-2012) Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The application for funding was to the ‘Advantage West Midlands Challenge Fund’ and was submitted in the name of West Midlands Higher Education Association Libraries Group.

Clearly the project failed to meet one of its aims to “secure the future of the repository and the service” and the site went down in June 2007. You can still view the site on the internet archive but the images aren’t accessible.

Keith Berry: The June 2007 date is gleaned from the blurb written by amateur photographer Keith Berry who downloaded some of Nicklin’s images before the Chrysalis site went down and then re-published 291 of them on his web photo storage space of choice, PBase.

D’Log and Created in Birmingham: My ‘discovery’ point of the slides came from a post on D’Log’s site who drew attention to Berry’s storage of the files. A further post on the CiB site involved some useful digging around in the comments where some of us seemed to find our way into the above-mentioned ‘Media Vault’ (or ‘ebank’ as it seemed to be called, am sure it was the same thing though) and were able to access the hi-res versions of the images. At some point though, this backdoor was firmly shut.

Epapers: On the Birmingham History forum in January 2010 there is this post: “I’ve just had a very interesting email […] from Edward Craft, the Digital Library Systems Specialist at the University of Birmingham who is developing a web site to make the 446 Phyllis Nicklin photos available to all. The photos are the *unretouched* scans of the original slides from the 2004 Chrysalis Project. The site is part of the ePapers project.”

The epapers website seems a bit of a curious space. A place for the University of Birmingham to store stuff that academics produce that sometimes falls out of being pure research. There are discussion papers and commissioned researched as well as some digital images from their archives.

And this is where the Nicklin archive is now stored. 446 images. All geo-tagged, properly referenced and in high resolution. Epapers is a frequently updated internal resource rather than a project reliant on external funds from relatively short-lived organisations so there’s some hope that the images will be accessible here for quite a while.

Flickr: The copyright notice on the images states: “The photographic image is available to download and redistribute for non-commercial purposes.” So it makes sense then that some of Nicklin’s images are on Flickr. Some have been repurposed and others have left the ‘All Rights Reserved’ setting at default, effectively asserting their own copyright on the images.

That aside, I think these images being out there on a platform like Flickr can only be a positive – certainly a better alternative to building a platform like Project Chrysalis. But that was 2003, coincidentally the same time I began a secondment with Advantage West Midlands when you couldn’t move for people saying we need a portal for this or that. Put ‘portal’ on a funding application and it was a shoo-in and Chrysalis feels like a result of that hit-and-hope era of the web compared with the social internet we inhabit now.

There’s more to the Nicklin archive as I understand it. The scanned images were a selection. It’d be great to see the rest getting digitised and I’d like to suggest the funding application read something like this:

“There’s these great images, they blow people away when they find them. We’d like to scan every single last slide we can find and then let them roam free over the internet. Honestly, it’ll be fine.”

I’ve been as accurate as I can in researching for this post but if you have further details or points of clarification do post in the comments.


7 thoughts on “Finding Phyllis Nicklin

  1. Pingback: Tab dump | I Am Pete Ashton

  2. These great non-commercial use images have given me a great insight into the way Birmingham looked, in some cases before I was even born, and I’ve enjoyed trying to match the angles of the originals and merging the composite images into a ‘window into the past’ image on my Flickr site.

    I have credited and linked to the original images where applicable as I would like others to discover this fantastic archive of Birmingham from days gone by.

    The most shocking is the loss of the Mason College building that was demolished for the construction of the Central Library (itself due to be demolished after the new library opens in 2013) – see

    Great article on a great insight into Birmingham’s history.

  3. I have recently discovered some of these photographs via a Facebook page. I have now started a Facebook page to put modern up to date photos of things that may one day be gone or changed in someway. Just for fun really but also in the hope that such photos may be of interest for future generations.

  4. I would gladly pay to see her photo’s on display .. although they may be online , i would love to see them in an art gallery

  5. I came to view Phyllis Nicklin’s slides via Keith Berry’s excellent site some years ago now. I have always known that there were more and I feel that the rest of Ms Nicklin’s collection should be digitized and made available to all. The slides we have seen so far are in colour. Of course, many of the older photos of Birmingham are black and white being taken before colour photography became more widely available.

    Kevin B. Thanks for starting your Facebook page adding contemporary Birmingham buildings
    for the record. If Phllis Nicklin hadn’t taken out her camera and took photos of familiar Birmingham buildings and streets all those years ago we wouldn’t have these gems. Good luck Kevin.

  6. A most interesting piece, Dave – and I heartily endorse your closing paragraph. I have only just discovered Phyllis’s pictures; as a photographer, and a student at Aston University in the 1980s, I take a particular interest. For their documentary and artistic qualities, these photographs would look splendid in an exhibition and a book. I don’t doubt their wide appeal; look at the popularity of Vivian Maier’s photos of Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, unknown for decades and only recently discovered.


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